“Mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you”

I should probably clarify my examples - Being a good musician really doesn't mean anything as far as being a "Reacher" to me. Bach is famous for a reason - he codified Western music. Period. The loose set of rules that Western music followed were basically created. The next 300+ years of music owes its existence to Bach. Gutenberg brought us out of the dark ages, because without the ready availability of print, reading was sort of a moot point, and you just believed whatever you were told. Penicillin has saved literally millions of lives - without it strep throat would still evolve into rheumatic fever and potentially rheumatic heart disease.

Fame and fortune are completely irrelevant to this, but many of these people - with time - are later recognized as being so spectacular. If I remember my music history class correctly, Bach was appreciated in his time, but the scope of his genius wasn't fully realized until the 1800s, when other composers had had the time to realize the impact of his contribution. The fact that many people outside of "our" circles here (I assume most GWJers are pretty well-read and generally educated) have no idea who Bach really was doesn't matter - modern music exists as it does thanks to him.

I'm not talking about correcting the "way of the world" or anything. I'm not talking about making people feel better about themselves because they labor in obscurity while less-worthy people get credit - that's the way humanity works and it's not going to change. I'm talking about making people feel better about themselves because, if they actually do something positive - anything - they're helping humanity.

Yes, I give Bach full credit for what he did - but the reality is that the monks who chanted before him, the less composers who preceded him, and the countless hundreds of thousands of musicians who have followed have all supported his work. Without those hundreds - thousands - of years of others contributing to Western music, Bach would not have been perfectly positioned in human history to accomplish what he did. The fact that most of the people who "helped" in this way were not as talented as Bach - or were equally talented but not in that exact position - doesn't make them lesser human beings.

In general, the only people who I don't think are helping are those who chose to act negatively, to take away from others. Perhaps that's a hypocritical view - surely there are people who, Bruce Wayne-style, would not have achieved what they did had not some personal tragedy affected them. But I would say that if you and your daily work doesn't involve stealing, hurting, killing, poisoning, etc, then you are working for the future of humanity.

I'd just like to point out that Alexander Fleming is credited with discovering Penicillin, and he did it entirely by accident. It wasn't anything he did special, or because he was talented, or because he worked hard (even though he did).

I think the book "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell has ideas that would form an excellent glossary for the things this thread deals with. Highly recommended reading.

LarryC wrote:

I'd just like to point out that Alexander Fleming is credited with discovering Penicillin, and he did it entirely by accident. It wasn't anything he did special, or because he was talented, or because he worked hard (even though he did).

I think the book "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell has ideas that would form an excellent glossary for the things this thread deals with. Highly recommended reading.

Right - but again, that's sort of the point - the right exact circumstances had aligned to allow this. The people around him, none of whom are probably credited with anything so awesome, helped it to happen even though they probably were never aware of it.

I guess my t;ldr is that even the most mundane of tasks really do serve a purpose. You don't have to enjoy them, and I think everybody is allowed to seek out happiness. But the reality is that so few of us will ever do anything so world-changing that we might as well realize that even so, we do have value.

I prefer a slightly different take. Everything - every little thing we do potentially matters, and we don't have the benefit of hindsight to say which is which. So the best thing we can do is to just give it everything and hope it sticks.

LarryC wrote:

I'd just like to point out that Alexander Fleming is credited with discovering Penicillin, and he did it entirely by accident. It wasn't anything he did special, or because he was talented, or because he worked hard (even though he did).

The salient point here is that, accidentally or not, he didn't do what 99.99999% of humanity would have done: throw the dish out without thinking about it. There's a rather lovely quote that is attributed to Albert Szent-Gyorgy: 'Genius is seeing what everyone else sees and thinking what no-one else has thought. That's the point. For all the people sniffing that the great figures of the past got their positions mostly due to chance, I'd argue that they did something very special: they got off their arse, mentally or literally, and did something.

There's a wonderful underlying message in Shawn of the Dead that a lot of people seem to miss. The entire beginning of the movie shows the world prior to the zombie outbreak, and the joke is that the entire world is already full of people who are essentially zombies, utterly unaware of anything beyond their little sphere, and stumbling thoughtlessly through that. And I really think that's the case, with so many people doing the absolute minimum necessary to keep life ticking over. I'm talking about going to a job that they don't care about, doing work that doesn't fulfill them at all, and then wandering home to slump in front of an entertainment device and maybe indulge in an alcoholic beverage. Repeat ad nauseam until retirement/death.

While Ayn Rand's philosophical statements are debatable in many aspects, I find it hard to argue with her admiration for what essentially boils down to people giving a damn about what they do, regardless of what they do. Whether astronaut or streetsweeper, I really do think that there's a fundamental source of satisfaction from doing anything well. Hell, some of the Buddhist texts I've read, when speaking about mindfulness, express almost precisely this thought. When you make a bed, don't just throw the sheets back, make it properly, with your mind on what you're doing. Similarly, if you're driving a truck, drive it as precisely as possible. In the aviation community, a huge amount of pride is made in trying to make the flight and especially the landing as smooth as possible. Yanking around on the controls and just dropping the plane on the runway would get the job done, but the sort of people who make it as professional pilots just can't accept that.

Bottom line, if you allow yourself to operate at the minimum level needed for day-to-day activities and never put forth a greater effort, you'll languish in the worst sort of obscurity: a total lack of self-esteem. One thing unifies every great artist, scientist, inventor, poet, and anyone else who has achieved notable things: they made more than the minimum effort.

And incidentally, there seems to be a poisonous attitude that someone being greater in something makes those around them lesser. It's the source of all jealousy and efforts to pull people back down instead of using them as a source of inspiration. I wish we could get past this. Yes, the great composer needs the musicians to play his pieces. But without his great talent, the symphony wouldn't exist. Both are made better by each other, and it's a symbiotic, rather than adversarial relationship.

At the same time, we have a terrible tendency towards attributing things to one Great Man, especially when it comes to modern science. There's a reason that such accounts are about 3 generations out of fashion in the academic study of history: They're inaccurate and potentially harmful to those who think that progress and discovery really are achieved in great leaps by heroic individuals.

LarryC wrote:

I prefer a slightly different take. Everything - every little thing we do potentially matters, and we don't have the benefit of hindsight to say which is which. So the best thing we can do is to just give it everything and hope it sticks.

That reminds me of the story of the three stone-cutters. Each has a different perspective on their work. The first says they're cutting stone. The second brags about how well they're cutting the stone, or that they're building a really impressive wall. The third explains that the wall is going to be part of a massive cathedral, and that they're working for the greater glory of God.

That story comes up all the time in chain emails and the like. I suppose that, with the right philosophy/theology/politics, I could view what I "build" at work to be a cathedral of sorts. Given my actual views, though ... man, I can build a pretty thick wall.

Coldstream wrote:

There's a wonderful underlying message in Shawn of the Dead that a lot of people seem to miss. The entire beginning of the movie shows the world prior to the zombie outbreak, and the joke is that the entire world is already full of people who are essentially zombies, utterly unaware of anything beyond their little sphere, and stumbling thoughtlessly through that. And I really think that's the case, with so many people doing the absolute minimum necessary to keep life ticking over. I'm talking about going to a job that they don't care about, doing work that doesn't fulfill them at all, and then wandering home to slump in front of an entertainment device and maybe indulge in an alcoholic beverage. Repeat ad nauseam until retirement/death.

Like most zombie movies, I tend to view it more as the admonition that "the unexamined life is not worth living."

While Ayn Rand's philosophical statements are debatable in many aspects, I find it hard to argue with her admiration for what essentially boils down to people giving a damn about what they do, regardless of what they do. Whether astronaut or streetsweeper, I really do think that there's a fundamental source of satisfaction from doing anything well. Hell, some of the Buddhist texts I've read, when speaking about mindfulness, express almost precisely this thought. When you make a bed, don't just throw the sheets back, make it properly, with your mind on what you're doing. Similarly, if you're driving a truck, drive it as precisely as possible. In the aviation community, a huge amount of pride is made in trying to make the flight and especially the landing as smooth as possible. Yanking around on the controls and just dropping the plane on the runway would get the job done, but the sort of people who make it as professional pilots just can't accept that.

Bottom line, if you allow yourself to operate at the minimum level needed for day-to-day activities and never put forth a greater effort, you'll languish in the worst sort of obscurity: a total lack of self-esteem. One thing unifies every great artist, scientist, inventor, poet, and anyone else who has achieved notable things: they made more than the minimum effort.

It's not just that it's really hard to take pride in your work if your job is cleaning bathrooms, or to see merit in your work if you're a bureaucrat in some dystopian film. In Rand's world, everybody worth caring about has or can easily switch to doing the job that is best suited to their tastes and abilities. In reality, there's a lot more friction and inefficiency in the job market than that. If a person with the mind and skills of a virtuoso surgeon was confined by circumstance to working as assistant night-shift manager at a diner, Rand herself would take issue with such an "irrational" situation. Rand would surely find someone (probably due to caring about the "wrong" things) to blame for not getting that person employed in a manner that would make better use of their skills. Such irrationalities and inefficiencies are one of the few things wrong in her ethics. Regardless of how much effort the assistant manager put into the job, there's likely someone out there who is willing to admit that they're not a Randian ubermensch--that they belong working as an assistant night manager. The potential surgeon has no obligation to the potential assistant manager in Rand's mind, but she would view the fact that the job is occupied as a symptom of evil elsewhere.

The Striving I recorded inspired by this thread is up! Really enjoying the discussion.

Certis:

Cool podcast! How many of these things do you do, and where do you find the time to sleep?

Coldstream:

I broadly agree with what you're saying, but where you emphasize great talent, I emphasize being all you can be. Alexander Fleming was not an outstanndingly talented scientist. He was simply at the right place at the right time, in the right frame of mind, all of which were made possible because of where humanity in general was at the time.

Of course, all of it was also possible because Fleming was alert and was striving with everything he's got, so I submit that it has more to do with great attitude and great work ethic than it has to do with great talent.

A key point of difference between us is that I think that everyone is "replaceable" - or that no one is, it depends on which side you want to take. A great composer with great talent would compose a great symphony, which will make great musicians make great music, but if that great composer were not there, it doesn't follow that there wouldn't be a symphony to play - someone else would and should step up. The symphony may not be as good, but there would still be a symphony to play!

I am a firm believer in representing the things you want, and that we each of us embody that which we choose to. So long as there is a single musician in that single orchestra willing to write a symphony, symphonies will never die - there will always be a symphony to play.

That is - unless we laze around and do nothing, or are content with letting others dictate the minimum we can be and then zombieng through life half dead. That's no way to live.

It's notable that although Fleming worked hard at identifying and isolating the substance he termed "penicillin," that he was ultimately unsuccessful at creating a usable antibiotic(he "failed"). It took the later works of Florey, Chain, Heatley and Abraham to produce an actual working antibiotic.

This is why I do not believe in the "Reachers" view of the world. For every multi-Nobel Pauling who push the envelope of what any single individual can accomplish, there are tons of other hard-working, less brilliant guys who are together actually moving humanity forward, each one contributing a teeny, tiny amout of briiliance that will ultimately be synthesized by the one guy whose chief contribution usually is just to write down everything in one paper.

Only one guy gets to make the diamond crown, but we all of us are mining diamonds in our daily lives, as we speak.

I have yet to meet a person who was so ecstatic at having a dead end job and a beer-filled rerun-filled year of nights that he wouldn't willingly exchange it for life on a tropical island with tropical beauties while scuba diving and riding jet skis for a living.

And you know what? If dead end jobs in cold places spent watching reruns is his idea of Paradise, then I fully support that. It takes all kinds. I just want him to be the best dead-end-job-holding beer-swilling rerun-watching person that he can be.

LarryC wrote:

That is - unless we laze around and do nothing, or are content with letting others dictate the minimum we can be and then zombieng through life half dead. That's no way to live.

Quick point: screw you and your holier than thou attitude and your judgement of other people's lives. If I'm content to "go to a job that I don't care about, do work that doesn't fulfill me at all, and then wander home to slump in front of an entertainment device and maybe indulge in an alcoholic beverage", and if I do that by choice, who's to say that that's not a valid life choice? Not everybody needs to be a hero. Not everybody even needs to want to be a hero. That's as bad an attitude as expecting everyone to "find their inner greatness". Two sides of the same bullsh*t coin.

EDIT: Sorry; wasn't meant quite as specifically "Screw you, Larry" as it came across. More of a general "screw you, anyGuy who's all judgemental and stuff".

Chumpy_McChump wrote:
LarryC wrote:

That is - unless we laze around and do nothing, or are content with letting others dictate the minimum we can be and then zombieng through life half dead. That's no way to live.

Quick point: screw you and your holier than thou attitude and your judgement of other people's lives. If I'm content to "go to a job that I don't care about, do work that doesn't fulfill me at all, and then wander home to slump in front of an entertainment device and maybe indulge in an alcoholic beverage", and if I do that by choice, who's to say that that's not a valid life choice? Not everybody needs to be a hero. Not everybody even needs to want to be a hero. That's as bad an attitude as expecting everyone to "find their inner greatness". Two sides of the same bullsh*t coin.

Whoa. This is sort of what I was talking about earlier, with people getting hugely defensive over what they perceive to be judgement of their life choices. As I said above, there's this weird attitude that if someone achieves greatly in something, they somehow make everyone else around them lesser. My argument is that this is absolutely not the case, and isn't it a shame that instead people couldn't use that person as a source of inspiration to perhaps try something themselves? There's a bell-curve of achievement in society just like there is in just about anything to do with humanity, and the vast majority of people aren't going to be on that right tail.

In my view, putting forth the least effort possible to get by, with minimum investment in opportunities, is a perfectly valid life choice. However, I do believe that it, as with any life choice, comes with consequences. One consequence would be that there's little tolerance for such a person complaining that others have more money, opportunities, excitement, experiences, happiness, fulfillment, respect, or acclaim. If the minimalist person is happy with their life, then that's great. To be content with our life is one of the most cherished goals of humanity since time immemorial; it's the stuff that poetry is made of. There's no judgement here, only acknowledgement of consequence, and the hope that more people would take enough pride in themselves and what they do to become better. Hell, that's one of my personal goals: to become a little better in some way, every day.

In the great marathon of life, we all have different starting lines, and I acknowledge that. We all have burdens, and we all have advantages in something. All I'm saying is that I personally find it a little sad when people do the minimum in life not as a choice, but as a unthinking default. We can do better.

LarryC wrote:

I broadly agree with what you're saying, but where you emphasize great talent, I emphasize being all you can be. Alexander Fleming was not an outstanndingly talented scientist. He was simply at the right place at the right time, in the right frame of mind, all of which were made possible because of where humanity in general was at the time.

I actually think we're agreeing with each other here on almost every point, except perhaps that I don't think that great talent and people generally being 'all-you-can-be' are mutually exclusive. I'm not certain that you're asserting such exclusivity, but I wanted to clarify that. I absolutely and whole-heartedly encourage every person to strive to the limit of their talent, as I personally believe that the very deepest form of happiness is found in that journey. But (as I say above), I also respect the choice to live a quiet (mediocre is perhaps the more accurate term, but it has such a horrible negative connotation) life. My thought is that there are inevitably those amongst us who, by virtue of innate talent or exceptional hard-work, will distinguish themselves above their peers. The great violinists exemplify this, possessing both a natural talent and an almost inexhaustible capacity for practice. I argue that these people are not simply a product of being in the right place at the right time with the right mindset (which implies that any individual could do it, given the same circumstance), but achieve an inspirational level of greatness through both talent and reaching for the limit of their potential.

I'm reminded of Twain's comment "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them." Similarly, the individual who does not strive has no advantage over the person who cannot, and the person with great potential has no advantage of the person without. I agree that most people contribute to keeping society ticking over, and a smaller subset contribute to moving society forward, and a tiny subset set the course (by chance or talent, or a happy combination of both). That doesn't in any way minimise the contribution of the majority of folks who keep society humming along, but does leave room for recognition of those who are trying to advance things.

wordsmythe wrote:

It's not just that it's really hard to take pride in your work if your job is cleaning bathrooms, or to see merit in your work if you're a bureaucrat in some dystopian film. In Rand's world, everybody worth caring about has or can easily switch to doing the job that is best suited to their tastes and abilities.

I agree and disagree here. I agree that Rand's worldview made little allowance for the friction of living in the real-world. It's no accident that her major characters were all financially independent, thus allowing a great deal of latitude in their life choices. When you're living hand-to-mouth in government housing, you have far less choice. On the other hand, I flatly disagree that it's hard to take pride in menial labour. I've worked everything from being a gas-station attendant (including cleaning those hell-hole toilets) to construction to law enforcement to being (soon!) a physician. At every single stage there was pride to be taken in a job well done, regardless of the job. In the hospitals, I routinely thank the housekeeping personnel when I see them mopping floors or emptying trash. I do so because I believe that while they're not the ones performing procedures or treating patients, they're doing vitally important work without which the hospital simply couldn't function. The same goes for the maintenance guys, the IT folks, the payroll clerks, and the lady serving spaghetti in the cafeteria. These people should absolutely take pride in their work! I have far more respect for the guy in a pristine white chef's uniform serving food who clearly takes pride in his work than I do for some of the medical personnel wandering around in untucked, rumpled scrubs who don't look like they give a damn.

Attitude is everything. Is it harder for a garbage-truck worker to take pride in his work than a world-class neurosurgeon? Of course! But it can absolutely be done, and I believe that anyone who can get themselves into that mental space of doing the very best they can at whatever they do will be infinitely happier than they otherwise would be.

TL;DR: Yay, pride!

wordsmythe wrote:

Where I struggle is in the "burying your talents" idea. Sure, I've got passions and interests--lots of them, even. But I also have this genius-level IQ that I'm using to send letters, read letters, and write reports about the letters we send and receive. It feels wasteful.

Being told my IQ was one of the single biggest handicaps for me growing up. It was like an albatross of expectation around my neck.

I share Coldstream's life experience and (unsurprisingly) his perspective. Sure, I'm a doctor now, but I wasn't always, and I don't take special pride in it. I take pride in doing what I do well - it just happens to be doctoring now. Before that it was school, and during school it was peddling a variety of stuffs - making and selling sandwiches, baked goods, woven blankets, and so on. In my youth, I sold muffins, portered merchandise, and waited tables.

Being the best goddamned waiter I could be doesn't advance cutting edge medicine, but it does improve the lives of whichever person I served - and that made the world a slightly better place to live in. In fact, being positive about this and having fun while being awesome often has an unintended side effect - it makes others want to be awesome, too. That, in itself, is already awesome.

You don't have to be a neurosurgeon to change the world for the better. Indeed, neurosurgeons generally work on borderline dead guys, and the probability of any patient under their care turning out well isn't the best in the field. You could say that they're the ditch diggers of the medical field - only it's hard to dig that particular ditch, and you almost have to be an arrogant jerk by nature to stand the pressure.

In contrast, a waiter can make the lives of 200 powerful and influential people better in a single night of work, and they all get to live and influence the world afterwards.

Coldstream wrote:
Chumpy_McChump wrote:
LarryC wrote:

That is - unless we laze around and do nothing, or are content with letting others dictate the minimum we can be and then zombieng through life half dead. That's no way to live.

Quick point: screw you and your holier than thou attitude and your judgement of other people's lives. If I'm content to "go to a job that I don't care about, do work that doesn't fulfill me at all, and then wander home to slump in front of an entertainment device and maybe indulge in an alcoholic beverage", and if I do that by choice, who's to say that that's not a valid life choice? Not everybody needs to be a hero. Not everybody even needs to want to be a hero. That's as bad an attitude as expecting everyone to "find their inner greatness". Two sides of the same bullsh*t coin.

Whoa. This is sort of what I was talking about earlier, with people getting hugely defensive over what they perceive to be judgement of their life choices. ... There's no judgement here, only acknowledgement of consequence, and the hope that more people would take enough pride in themselves and what they do to become better.

Do you see the dichotomy here? Hoping that people "take enough pride in themselves ... to become better" is extremely judgemental. There are a number of major implications here: 1) becoming "better" should be everyone's goal, 2) anyone with any sort of self-worth should obviously be trying to improve, and 3) anyone who is not trying to improve themselves obviously has no pride. I think those ideas are deeply tied to the Western idea of "progress" - namely that everything can always be "better", and that "better" is the ultimate goal, always, for everything.

I certainly agree that folks who coast don't get to bitch about people who work hard and get fatter lewt. I disagree that folks who coast are somehow doing themselves a disservice, or that not coasting is always better.

T-Rex is stepping into the fray:

IMAGE(http://www.qwantz.com/comics/comic2-2093.png)

Title text: "guys i don't think my legs are supposed to bend this way."

wordsmythe wrote:

T-Rex is stepping into the fray:

I endorse this post with my approval.

One year on from pitching this thread, I would like to humbly state the following:

a) This conversation has been and still is a joy to read.

b) I was very happy to see it even triggered an episode of the Striving podcast, which I listened to with great pleasure.

c) The abstract ideas I initially raised were indeed abstract, offered ample room for a range of interpretations and did indeed direct the flow of the thread to places I hadn’t expected it to go. It’s all the more valuable for it.

After substantial self-reflection throughout 2012, a year that basically stood up as mirror for me to take a good look at myself in, I've got a few lines to add.

When I was talking about reaching for the stars like Guillermo del Toro or Kevin Levine, sure, Hollywood may have given me the futile desire to feel like being destined for some greater cause. I certainly hold a secret wish that there’s a wonderful realisation in store for me, that will reveal itself to me one day and make my life feel like turning a divinely gratifying dream into reality.

But that’s not what I was talking about.

And when I was talking about justifying your existence, sure, it would be awesome to be one of the world’s publicly celebrated few, be it for winning a Nobel Prize, releasing a best-selling indie pop album or (even accidentally) inventing a cure against HIV.

But that’s not what I was talking about either.

I was talking about wanting to do something, doing it, and taking joy and/or pride in doing it - for your own sake, not vis-à-vis the rest of the world or to meet other people’s expectations.

It’s not about getting wealth and fame for what you’re doing. It's about getting a genuine sense of satisfaction simply from committing time and energy into a craft, profession or activity that you sincerely like, and that by doing it you're producing the contribution you want to offer the world.

This is what triggered my original entry: the absence in my life of a real passion and a sense of purpose, and my disappointment for not having discovered them.

I do not expect the world to condemn me for this, and I do not think it has any legitimacy to do so. I certainly don’t condemn mediocrity either, as the thought of a mission to make binary distinctions between excellence and mediocrity rings fascist and disturbing. I raise my hat to anyone who does what he does with a passion, even if it’s only enough to achieve, for want of a better word, “mediocre” performance.

Still, I firmly believe that people, at least those whose brain runs by similar incentives as mine does, are more likely to achieve “absolution”, ie. a sense of fulfilment by one’s own terms, if they devote themselves to activities that feel meaningful and contributory to the greater good.

As for me, I'm not quite there yet, but 2012 brought me a whole lot closer to it. More than anything, 2012 helped me realise the extent to which I've been habitually holding on to a perception of myself and an identity that was no longer valid, relevant or conducive to personal development. I'd become a master at lying to myself, and at believing in those lies.

2013 will be the year to shed the old tattered skin and reveal a new, genuine shine that's been trapped underneath for years.